Hugo Münsterberg, William Marston and Forensic Psychology

“Realize what you really want. It stops you from chasing butterflies and puts you to work digging gold.”

-William Moulton Marston

The word forensic is defined as “the scientific method for investigation of crime”. Forensic psychology is merger of law and psychology.

One of the earliest forensic psychologists was Hugo Münsterberg. Hugo did lot of study on reliability of testimony of eye witness. He wrote about this in his book “On the Witness Stand”.


Münsterberg found out reasons for unreliability in testimony of eye witness. In his book talks about how eye witness testimony is inherently susceptible to what he calls as “illusions” i.e. a subject’s perceptions could be effected by the circumstances, making his/her memory of the events that transpired or testimony inaccurate. He states that with regularity the testimony between two different individuals in the same circumstances can be radically different, even when neither of whom had the slightest interest in changing the facts as remembered.


Münsterberg believed that memory is easily fallible, because one’s memory is affected by the associations, judgments, and suggestions that penetrate into every one of one’s observations and taint out memory and our recollection of events ex. a person may read some facts about case in newspapers which he may not be knowing and this may influence his memory.


“The lawyer alone is obdurate. The lawyer and the judge and the juryman are sure that they do not need the experimental psychologist . . . They go on thinking that their legal instinct and their common sense supplies them with all that is needed and somewhat more . . . Just in the line of the law it therefore seems necessary not to rely simply on the technical statements of scholarly treatises, but to carry the discussion in the most popular form possible before the wider tribunal of the general reader”

-Hugo Münsterberg

During his lectures at Harvard University, he used to conduct an experiment. He used to show his students a large sheet of white cardboard with a certain number of black dots on it spread in an irregular order. He exposed it for the students to view for only five seconds, and then asked them how many black dots that they thought were on the sheet. Hugo description of results is given below.

“The results were surprising in that even with “highly trained, careful observers, whose attention was concentrated on the material, and who had full time for quiet scrutiny… there were some who believed that they saw seven or eight times more points than some other saw.”

One of his students was William Marston. Marston was law graduate, who was doing doctorate in Psychology from Harvard University. Marston was a talented student. With the help of his wife Elizabeth he developed the systolic blood pressure test of deception. The rationale behind the test was simple enough: when people lied, their elevated autonomic arousal could be measured through systolic blood pressure (later expanded to include galvanic skin response). He claimed that this method had 97-99% accuracy rate.


In US a person called James Frye killed another person called Brown. Frye was later arrested and given death penalty. Frye claimed that he had not killed Brown. Lawyers of Frye decided to invite Marston and asked him to use his deception test instrument to find out if Frye was telling truth.

Marston conducted deception test in jail and came to conclusion that Frye was telling truth.

"It was my upbringing, I was smacked on my bottom when I was born."

Unfortunately Judge McCoy had no faith his Marston’s instrument and its results. He declared that deception test was unreliable and Frye was guilty of murder.

“I gave him a deception test in the District jail. No one could have been more surprised than myself to find that Frye’s final story of innocence was entirely truthful! His confession to the Brown murder was a lie from start to finish”

-William Marston on James Frye


William Marston later wrote book called “Emotions of Normal People”. This book resulted in DISC psychometric test. Marston did not claim any copyrights over his idea. DISC today is available under various brands like DiSC, Extended DISC, Thomas Profiling etc.


Marston came up with idea of a superwoman who fights for truth, which took shape of Wonder Woman series.



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